SPS bus driver retiring after 70 years of service

Published 4:04 pm Thursday, May 30, 2024

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SUFFOLK, VA. — Suffolk Public Schools bus driver Rutherford Ulysses Whitfield is retiring after seven decades of service. The 85-year-old has been a Suffolk bus driver since he was 16.

The longest-working employee in the school district, the 85-year-old bus driver will also be honored alongside other SPS retirees during a ceremonial banquet on Thursday, May 30. Before the night’s celebration, Whitfield reflected on his history as a bus driver for the school division, sharing that he started younger than most.

“At [the] age of 15, I was a junior in high school,” Whitfield said. “The principal came to my math classroom and he told me that the school bus was parked in my family yard, and my aunt, she lived 10 miles away. She was driving over there to drive that bus. So he said, ‘Well, since the bus is in your yard, you might as well get your license and drive.’”

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Whitfield says that in 1954 students were permitted to drive school buses at age 16. After his 16th birthday, the East Suffolk High School student signed up for his school bus license, and in September 1954, he was assigned to his first route. Along with noting that student drivers were paid $35 per month, he also reflected on driving his classmates as a student driver.

“It was just like one little family because everybody then was so cooperative,” he said. “It’s not like now… All grades from 1 through 12 rode the same bus.”

Being a bus driver wasn’t his only form of service. Whitfield says he also worked at the East Suffolk High School cafeteria. By age 20, the principal asked him to serve as director of John F. Kennedy High School’s cafeteria from 1965 through 1970. Whitfield also served at Obici Hospital’s cafeteria for 31 years while also serving as an SPS bus driver. Whitfield gave a glimpse of his current bus routes.

“Right now, I am doing biomedical (high school) students and all of my students come from Northern Suffolk, and they come here to Lakeland,” he said. “So, my first pick-up is at 6:19 a.m., and they don’t get to school until 8:00 a.m.”

Along with other stops at the Career Academy at Pruden and taking students to Norfolk to The Governor’s School for the Arts, Whitfield says he doesn’t see his day end until around 6:30 p.m. Despite the long days, he says he enjoyed it. After retirement, Whitfield says he hasn’t made any special plans.

On the news of his retirement, Whitfield also notes the response from students.

“They were explaining what type of bus driver I was. One fella said I was a ‘cool bus driver,’ Whitfield said with a laugh.

He also enthusiastically advised up-and-coming bus drivers starting at SPS to” Be on time with your schedule.”